Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 1. Boswell’s Johnson the Johnson familiarly known to us; His personality and his Works

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

VIII. Johnson and Boswell

§ 1. Boswell’s Johnson the Johnson familiarly known to us; His personality and his Works

IT was a supreme fortune that gave Johnson the friendship of Reynolds and Boswell. His great personality is still an active and familiar force. We know him as well as if he had lived among us. But the first of Reynolds’s portraits was painted when Johnson had completed The Rambler and was already “the great moralist,” and Boswell did not meet him till after he had obtained his pension. The Johnson that we know is the Johnson “who loves to fold his legs and have his talk out.” The years in which he fought poverty and gained his place in the world of letters are obscure to us, in comparison with those in which he enjoyed his hard-won leisure. He never cared, in later life, to speak about his early struggles; he never spoke much about himself at any time. Even when he wrote the lives of authors whom he had known and might have told his own experiences without disturbing the unity of his picture, he offered little more than the reflection of his feelings. Sir John Hawkins did not make full use of his great opportunity. He alone, of all Johnson’s biographers, had known him almost from the start of their work in London, but he drew on his recollections fitfully and lazily. He has given enough to show how much more he might have given. Boswell, with all his pertinacious curiosity, found that he had to rely mainly on his own researches. There were in these early years subjects “too delicate to question Johnson upon.” Much remained, and still remains, for others to discover.

New letters, anecdotes or facts will not disturb our idea of Johnson. They will, at most, fill gaps and settle doubts. The man himself is known. Yet the very greatness of his personality has tended to interfere with the recognition of his greatness as a man of letters. No other author whose profession was literature seems to owe so little of his fame to his books. Many writers, Dryden and Scott among others, give the impression that they were greater than anything that they have written. It has been the unique fate of Johnson to be dissociated from his works. He would have welcomed the knowledge that he was to be remembered as a man, for he had no delusions about authorship. But he is to be found in his works as he wished to be known, and as he was. If the greatest of biographies catches him at moments which he would not have recorded, it is also true that his writings give us his more intimate thoughts, and take us into regions which were denied to his conversation.